Thoreau talked about “the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation” many years ago. But I don’t think there could be any better description of the mass of people in the working world today.
I’ve been to companies all over the world, taught thousands of workers from the frontline to the C-suite, and I’ve seen thousands of examples of the quiet desperation Thoreau talked about, but I’ve also seen people doing “work they love” in places I would have never expected. The difference between these two groups of people had less to do with what they were doing
Years ago, I have no idea when, I have no idea who started it, and I don’t care, someone started convincing people that they needed to do work that they love. And, whether the person meant it or not, so many of the people that got this message began to believe that all you have to do is really find something that is fun, entertaining, or easy and go find a way to make a living at it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people making money online playing video games and riding their skateboard. But the majority of us, while we find it fun, aren’t actually committed to what we “love” or good at what we “love” to actually make any money at it. And the vast majority of us fall in that category.
There are also people that “love” manual labor, really tough work, menial tasks, and Excel spreadsheets (though I believe whoever invented those spreadsheets was an evil genius reveling in the pain it would cause the rest of us, or perhaps just me). But the majority of us can’t identify a job function that doesn’t sound like drudgery, monotony, and prolonged pain.
I do still believe finding work that we “love” is essential, not just for our own lives, but for the very survival of the businesses we work for and run. I don’t, however, believe that means we all need to quit our jobs and start a fishing show on youtube because we like to go out on the boat with our drunk cousin Bob who make inappropriate jokes. Though, yes, I might watch an episode or two of that.
Sometimes, finding work that we love has nothing to do with the work itself.
One of the most engaging jobs I had in my younger days was working on a fishing cannery in Alaska the summer of my freshman year of college. The work itself was hard, smelly, and you had to be up all hours of the day and night. No one jumped out of bed thinking, “I can’t wait to gut another fish our climb down the ladder on the docks and get yelled at by a Russian boat captain that can’t wait to rattle young cocky kids like me. The work was horrible, but I loved every moment of it.
I loved it because it was part of something bigger for me. The job represented exploration, experiencing something new, and trying something different. It was an adventure, and being arms deep in fish guts was simply part of the journey. If you asked me if I love processing fish, the answer would be hell no. But did I love working on a cannery? More than a majority of the jobs I’ve had since…and I’ve had some pretty cool jobs.
In my travels, I’ve met people who do the most mundane and brutal work known to man. Haul truck drivers, miners, roughnecks in the oil patch, line workers in production plants, and field workers in farms across the country. What is striking, is how often you find people that love what they do. They don’t live the lives of quiet desperation, not because they woke up one day and said to themselves, “gosh, I really think I love breaking my back, sitting in the sun too long, doing the same task sometimes for weeks, and not getting noticed by anyone.”
The reason they love what they are doing is that they know why they are doing what they are doing. Some people find something they love to do and some people find something they love and are happy to do whatever allows the constant pursuit of that thing, person, or feeling.
Leading a life of “quiet desperation” doesn’t happen to so many people because they can’t make millions creating fart videos on Youtube or make it big as a famous Hollywood actor. Quiet desperation comes from a lack of connection between what it we are doing and what it is we really want out of our lives.
Some people want to see how good they can be at a specific video game, and they make a living at it. Not because they just love playing video games, but because they love learning, growing, improving, and challenging themselves at that specific thing.
Some people want a job that will pay the bills and give them security, and they have no desire to climb the ladder or be famous. They love what they do, not because they are excited about it, but because they love seeing what they can create in and outside of work in the relationships they develop, in the people they help, and in the stability they provide to those they love who may also be pursuing work they love.
The work we love is meaningful and engaging, but for different reasons. We bring passion and purpose to this work, but in ways that are distinct to each individual. And we all have the potential to jump out of bed excited in the morning, but the root of that excitement is unique for each of us.
We are all one of a kind creatures with our own hopes, dreams, goals and desires. We lead lives of quiet desperation when we forget to connect what we are doing to what we love, when convince ourselves we must only do the fun or easy thing instead of figuring out what we actually love and doing whatever moves us toward it, and when we seek to lead someone else’s life believing what they love will be what we love.
Find what you love first. Then figure out what you need to do to get it, there, or them. If you can commit to that journey, you won’t have to worry about desperation.